Somali lawyer sacked for dissent

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The Independent Online
AMID all the praise and thanks for the US intervention in Somalia last December there was one sour warning. Rakiya Omaar, director of the human rights organisation Africa Watch, vigorously opposed it and prophesied disaster. For that she was sacked.

Ms Omaar, 37, a lawyer with degrees in history from Oxford and law from Cambridge, is never afraid to give a political opinion and argues with the passion for which Somalis are famed. Faced with even mild disagreement, she does not concede, but presses home her argument with even greater force. She feels that the horrors of the past two days in Mogadishu have vindicated her position, and she remains unrepentant.

'The worst aspect of Monday's carnage was its predictability,' she said yesterday. 'Known in Somalia as 'the New White Warlords', the UN is behaving like another faction. Its obsession with General Aideed is short-sighted and counterproductive.' Ms Omaar argues that the UN must negotiate in Somalia, and that US bombing has hit the wrong houses, led to the death of the journalists killed by an angry mob on Monday and alienated Somalis.

It was, she says, her opposition to US military intervention which led to her dismissal from Africa Watch. Its parent body, Human Rights Watch, says she changed her position at the last moment without consulting anyone. 'She is a brilliant campaigner and single-handedly made Somalia an issue in this country,' said Susan Osnos, the Press Director of Human Rights Watch in New York. 'Our policy was to call for intervention, but when it was announced she completely reversed herself without consulting anyone. She switched publicly.'

Ms Omaar agrees that she called for more international involvement as the famine grew in 1992 and even for armed guards for relief convoys when bandits stole food aid, 'but I said if they went in they must disarm everyone and begin the long- term process towards reconciliation working with Somali structures both traditional and modern. My position was that they shouldn't be there, but if they are there they should stay as long as it takes'.

When it emerged that the marines were going in, Ms Omaar went on US television. 'I said that sending 30,000 US Marines in was wrong. It was wrong to take such an initiative without consulting Somalis on the ground. The famine was already healing itself and therefore this exclusive focus on the famine may salvage consciences in the West but it was mistaking the symptoms for the cause.'

Africa Watch asked her not to comment and, when she continued to give her views, sacked her. 'I think the reason I was sacked was because I was an ungrateful native who argued back,' she said.

Ms Omaar set up Africa Watch in 1988 as part of the US-based Human Rights Watch. Her first act was to investigate what was happening in northern Somalia. From then on she campaigned to get the world to take notice of Somalia's disintegration into famine and war.

(Photograph omitted)